Trump and Erdogan sidestep row over Kurdish fighters during key meeting
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The presidents of the US and Turkey vowed Tuesday to repair a relationship battered by years of disputes over Syria's civil war and its various fighting groups, even as they broached a new disagreement over U.S. plans to arm Kurdish fighters.
Delivering a statement alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Donald Trump said the U.S. would re-establish its military and economic partnership with Turkey. He committed to backing Turkey's fight against the Islamic State group and a Kurdish insurgency known as the PKK, which the U.S., the European Union and Turkey all consider a terrorist organization.
Such groups will "have no safe quarter," Trump said in the White House's historic Roosevelt Room, where he also commended Turkey's "leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria."
Erdogan issued a statement afterward, congratulating Trump for his presidential election victory. While Erdogan called for the extradition of a Pennsylvania-based cleric he blames for a failed coup in Turkey last summer, there was little tension.
The biggest dispute between the two NATO allies in recent days has been the U.S. plans to arm Kurdish Syrian militants to help them fight IS. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the militants and doesn't want them spearheading an operation to retake IS' self-declared capital of Raqqa.
Turkey believes the Kurds in Syria are linked to the PKK. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as their best battlefield partner on the ground in northern Syria.
Last month, the Turkish military bombed Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, in one case with American forces only about six miles (10 kilometers) away. Erdogan's government also has insisted it may attack Syrian Kurdish fighters again. The U.S., whose forces are sometimes embedded with the Kurds, has much to fear.
In his statement to reporters, Trump did not directly address his decision to arm the Kurds. But he asserted the U.S. and Turkey's mutual commitment to ending Syria's conflict.
The meeting took place with a White House still responding to what a senior U.S. official said was Trump's disclosure of classified information about an Islamic State terror threat involving laptop computers on aircraft.
Trump shared the threat in a meeting with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office last week, according to the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The U.S. is relying on regional allies including Turkey for intelligence-sharing and military assistance as it crafts a Syria policy, particularly as Iran and Russia work to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
Trump launched cruise missiles last month at a Syrian air base after accusing Assad of using chemical weapons. But the president hasn't outlined a strategy to quell the six-year civil war or usher Assad out of power, which his administration says will be needed to stabilize the Arab country.
Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdogan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdogan's presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdogan.